Posted on:Tuesday 27th October, 2020
It being Halloween this seemed a good moment to consider decadence, magic, and the occult in the work of the Welsh writer and mystic Arthur Machen (1863-1947). For a marginal figure, he receives an extraordinary amount of attention. In part due to the efforts of The Friends of Arthur Machen, ‘a fellowship dedicated to celebrating Machen and his work’,1 he has remained in public consciousness since the 1980s, especially among fans of horror and weird fiction, and his short stories appear frequently in anthologies of supernatural fiction. However, in recent years Machen has entirely emerged from the shadows…
He has been the subject of radio shows and podcasts, such as Sherds Podcast: The Outskirts of Literature focusing on The Hill of Dreams (February 2019) and the Bureau of Lost Culture episode ‘The London Labyrinth: The Strange Life of Arthur Machen’ (July 2020);2 Tartarus Press have published Machen’s 1890s notebook and reissued many of his works as well as a six part YouTube series ‘Collecting Arthur Machen’ hosted by the press’s publisher R. B. Russell;3 and in the summer of 2019, Strange Attractor Press reprinted a selection of essays from Faunus, the journal run by The Friends of Arthur Machen.4 In the past two years, there have been seventeen new editions, edited collections, and monographs dedicated solely to Machen.5 Most notably, this includes the first complete edition of his fiction edited by S. T. Joshi, which contains all of his short stories, novellas, novels, and prose poems.6
This Machen mania can be attributed in part to the recent folk horror revival, epitomised by Ari Aster’s visually spectacular Midsommar (2019) which atmospherically resembles one of Machen’s most studied works ‘The White People’ (written in 1899, published in 1904), a short story that centres around the initiation of a young woman into a mysterious Pagan cult. However, while we are currently experiencing a Machen revival, the focus is on the same ground, with a very select corpus of his more famous horror fiction being revisited time and again. This provides us with a slightly skewed impression of Machen and, now it has become easier than ever to read the entirety of his fiction, the label of ‘horror writer’ needs to be called into question.
Volume 2 of Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction, which spans 1896-1910, exemplifies this perfectly. It begins with The Hill of Dreams (written between 1895-97, published in 1907) and ends with The Secret Glory (1907) – novels that centre on a single male protagonist (Lucian Taylor in The Hill of Dreams and Ambrose Meyrick in The Secret Glory). These texts document Lucian’s and Ambrose’s boyhood experiences of the hidden mysteries of the natural world and reveal how, as adults, they explore these mysteries further still in London. In Machen’s 1890s fiction, fear, repulsion, and shock – quintessential elements of the horror genre – are incidental. His focus is instead on the correspondences between the ‘natural’ and the ‘manmade’, the countryside and the city and, by extension, Paganism and the occult. For Machen, magical thinking is an inescapable part of modern urban life, not something that can be left behind in the hills and woodlands of Gwent. It is this quality, rather than his ability to thrill and disgust, that sets Machen apart from other writers of horror fiction and, I would argue, establishes him instead as the grandfather of decadent occulture. As addressed by Dennis Denisoff in the introduction to his edited collection Arthur Machen: Decadent and Occult Works (2018), one of the most interesting aspects of Machen’s works is his exploration of the intersection between decadence, magic, and the occult.
Rather than being confined to his quintessential decadent novel The Hill of Dreams, magical practices and occult rituals are a method of decadent expression in many of Machen’s other, less well-known works, notably Ornaments in Jade, a series of ten short works in prose that he began writing at the peak of his creativity in 1897. Some of these individual pieces appeared in magazines and journals, such as Neolith and the Academy, but the collection was not published in its entirety until 1924 by Alfred A. Knopf.7 This edition was limited to 1,000 copies, each signed by the author. The works in Ornaments in Jade are, in order of appearance: ‘The Rose Garden’, ‘The Turanians’, ‘The Idealist’, ‘Witchcraft’, ‘The Ceremony’, ‘Psychology’, ‘Torture’, ‘Midsummer’, ‘Nature’, and ‘The Holy Things’. These titles give some indication of the focus of the collection – a decadent occult fusion of the urban and the rural, the real world and the imagination.
The pieces in Ornaments in Jade are frequently referred to as prose poems. However, this doesn’t really address the fact that, on the one hand, they are unmistakably narratives each centred around some sort of occult experience, and on the other, they are also fragmentary sketches of moments in time that frequently begin and end in medias res. For this reason, Machen’s description of them as ‘ornaments’ seems to be the most fitting. Not only is the prose clearly crafted, overly descriptive, and decorative (a decadent style that Machen would attempt to perfect in The Hill of Dreams), but, like the function of ornamentation in architecture, they draw our attention to otherwise overlooked threshold spaces. Often, ornamentation is used in-between spaces or at their peripheries – the ornamentation of baroque doorways or the cornicing in a Victorian house, for example. These ornamented edges or intermediate zones not only give definition to the space but direct our attention to these transitions – where one room becomes another, or the public space becomes private. In Ornaments in Jade, the prose ornaments seem to serve an occult function as they place emphasis on magical instances, spiritual experiences, and fleeting moments where the veil between worlds becomes thin. As the unnamed narrator in ‘The Holy Things’, the last ornament in the collection, writes when he experiences the momentary transformation of High Holborn into a high Catholic procession, ‘there seemed to be a strange air, and a new charm that soothed his mind’.8
In his blurb to the 1924 edition of Ornaments in Jade, Carl Van Vechten emphasises the obscurity of the collection, describing the pieces in this ‘strange and beautiful book’ as ‘mystic ornaments […] strung on a single thread, or theme, which holds them together in an esoteric homogeneity.’9 In Ornaments in Jade, Machen’s concern is with glamour in the older and more magical sense as well as a more contemporary interpretation of glamour as glitz and luscious ornamentation. Hopefully it is not too much of stretch to suggest that Machen’s evocation of jade, a precious green gemstone that has been used since antiquity for its supposed purification properties, beautifying practices such as Gua Sha, jewellery, and sculpture, exemplifies this union of magic and aesthetics. Jade is not just used in the title but is a motif that emerges to a certain extent throughout the collection. For example, in ‘The Turanians’, the young girl, Mary, is left with ‘a small green stone, a curious thing cut with strange devices, awful with age’10 as a reminder of her encounter with a nomadic community of Turanian metal workers, and in ‘The Idealist’, to the shy London clerk, Charles Symonds, the ‘backwaters of London’ appear ‘as bizarre and glowing as a cabinet of Japanese curios; he found here his delicately chased bronzes, work in jade, the flush and flame of extraordinary colours’.11 The idea of beauty as an illusion and a form of enchantment unites the contrasting landscapes of rural Wales and urban London, and jade is used by Machen as a reminder that the world contains hidden mysteries that are obscured to the uninitiated but can be found everywhere by those attuned to a certain decadent way of experiencing the world.
Ornaments in Jade is interesting because of its focus on moments of high strangeness, encounters that leave the protagonists permanently altered and that serve as a reminder of how the everyday can unexpectedly open up to a new reality. Rather than just being one of the four ‘modern masters’ of supernatural horror, as H. P. Lovecraft dubbed him in 1927,12 there is a subtlety and nuance in Machen’s writing that complicates a clear categorisation of his works. When we look into the dustier corners of Machen’s oeuvre, his ambiguous position between the popular and the hermetic, a space where decadence and magic thrive, is revealed.
Jessica Gossling is a member of the Decadent Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is Deputy Editor of Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadent Studies and Treasurer of the British Association of Decadent Studies (BADS).
1The Friends of Arthur Machen can be found at: http://www.arthurmachen.org.uk.
2 http://www.holdfastnetwork.com/sherdspodcast and https://sohoradiolondon.com/show/the-bureau-of-lost-culture-the-strange-life-of-arthur-machen-04-07-2020/.
3 To watch this YouTube series, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2B4S_Kfq3L8.
4 James Machin, ed., Faunus: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2019).
5 A selection of these publications include Arthur Machen: Decadent and Occult Works, ed. by Dennis Denisoff (Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2018); The Secret Ceremonies: Critical Essays on Arthur Machen, ed. by Mark Valentine and Timothy J. Jarvis (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2019); and The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, ed. by Aaron Worth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
6 Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction, ed. by S. T. Joshi, 3 vols (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2019). Joshi’s edited edition of Autobiographical Writings by Arthur Machen is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press.
7 This work has long been out of print and first appeared in hardback in 1997 by Tartarus Press and in paperback in 2018 by Snuggly Books.
8 Machen, ‘The Holy Things’, Ornaments in Jade, Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction, ed. by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2 (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2019), pp. 182-84 (p. 183).
9 Carl Van Vechten, quoted by Barry Humphries, ‘Introduction’, in Arthur Machen, Ornaments in Jade (Horum: Tartarus Press, 1997), pp. vii-x (p. viii).
10 Machen, ‘The Turanians’, in Ornaments in Jade, pp. 159-61 (p. 161).
11 Machen, ‘The Idealist’, Ornaments in Jade, pp. 162-64 (p. 164).
12 See H. P. Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’.